Hypopigmentation is a loss of skin color due to genetics, a health condition, or trauma. It can affect people from birth or develop later in life.

A person with hypopigmentation may have no color in their skin across their whole body, their skin is lighter than expected, or they have patchy areas of light and darker skin. It happens when there is damage that affects the melanocytes, cells that produce melanin. When the production of melanin falls in some areas or throughout the body, it leads to a loss of skin color.

Common causes of hypopigmentation include:

In this article, learn about the different types of hypopigmentation and why they occur.

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To understand hypopigmentation, it is helpful to know how skin usually gets its color. Melanocytes are pigment cells that produce melanin. Melanin is the protein that gives skin, hair, and eyes their pigment, or color.

The amount of pigment in a person’s skin will depend on genetic factors and sun exposure. However, for some people, pigmentation disorders can affect their skin’s darkness or lightness.

If the cells that produce melanin become damaged or have unusual genetic features, this can affect melanin production and skin color. It can lead to hypopigmentation, the loss of skin pigment or color. This loss of color may occur all over the body or in patches. The size and shape of the patches can vary widely.

Hypopigmentation can affect skin of any color, but it may be more noticeable in people with darker skin because of the contrast between their natural skin color and the white patches. People with darker skin may also be more prone to hypopigmentation after an inflammatory reaction.

There are several different causes of hypopigmentation, such as:

  • injury or trauma to the skin, such as a blister or burn
  • an inflammatory reaction, such as after an infection
  • damage to melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin
  • low levels of tyrosine, an amino acid that melanocytes use to produce melanin

Cosmetic skin treatments, such as chemical and laser peels, may also cause hypopigmentation if the procedure is done incorrectly.

Some chronic or genetic conditions can cause hypopigmentation. In these cases, hypopigmentation is usually present from birth.

Various conditions can result in hypopigmentation. Here are some of them.

Albinism

Albinism is an inherited disorder that results from a change in one of the genes that affect melanin production. The result is a reduction in melanin and a lack of skin pigmentation. Albinism is present from birth but does not become more severe over time.

A person with albinism may have:

  • very pale skin
  • hair that is white, very blond, brown, or reddish
  • light-colored irises in the eyes

The person may also have eyesight problems, as melanin plays a role in the development of the retina, a part of the eye that plays an essential role in vision. They will also be more prone to sunburn and skin cancer.

Vitiligo

Vitiligo is a long-term condition in which pale patches appear on the skin.

It can affect any part of the body but most commonly occurs on the:

  • face, especially the eyes and mouth
  • inside of the mouth
  • neck
  • hands, particularly the fingers and wrists
  • groin and genital area
  • armpits

It can also occur at the hair roots, which may result in hairs growing in gray or white.

Experts do not exactly know what causes vitiligo, but it occurs when melanocytes disappear from the skin, leading to a fall in melanin production. In some cases, this may result from an autoimmune condition, when the body mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy cells.

Vitiligo can occur at any age but usually appears before the age of 30 years. It tends to become more widespread over time.

Is it possible to prevent vitiligo?

Pityriasis alba

A person with pityriasis alba will have raised, slightly inflamed patches on their skin that can lose pigment over time. The lesions usually resolve within a year without intervention. However, it can take several months to a few years for the pigmentation to return.

Pityriasis alba tends to be more noticeable in people with darker skin.

The lesions usually affect the:

  • face
  • arms
  • upper trunk

The cause of pityriasis alba is not known, but it may be associated with atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. The loss of pigmentation is probably a result of inflammation.

Pityriasis alba usually occurs during childhood and adolescence.

Pityriasis versicolor

Pityriasis versicolor is a fungal skin infection, sometimes called tinea versicolor. The fungus that causes it lives on the skin of most people, but it does not usually cause symptoms and is not contagious.

However, if the fungus grows more than usual, the skin can change color in patches, usually on the:

  • chest
  • upper back
  • abdomen
  • upper arms

On darker skin, the patches are often light. On pale skin, they may be pink, red, or pale brown. They are flat and circular and can join together to form a larger area.

It is most common among young adults.

Here are some images to help identify the different types of hypopigmentation.

A doctor will examine any areas of skin changes, and they may recommend some tests.

These include:

  • Electrodiagnostic testing: A doctor will attach small electrodes to the head to detect signals between the eyes and the brain, and this can help detect albinism.
  • Wood’s lamp: This involves using a special ultraviolet (UV) lamp to look at the skin in more detail. This can help distinguish vitiligo from other conditions.
  • Taking a skin sample: A doctor may scrape off some skin cells for testing in a laboratory. This can help detect a fungal infection.

Treatment for hypopigmentation depends on the cause.

  • Albinism: This does not need treatment, but a person should take care to protect their skin and eyes from UV rays.
  • Vitiligo: No treatment is necessary, but short-term use of steroid creams or light treatment may help restore some color temporarily. Camouflage makeup can also help mask the patches.
  • Pityriasis alba: Low-dose steroid creams may help reduce inflammation and speed up repigmentation. Other options for people with more extensive cases include psoralen plus UVA (PUVA) photochemotherapy and targeted phototherapy.
  • Pityriasis versicolor: Antifungal treatments, such as creams, shampoos, or tablets can help manage the infection.

People with hypopigmentation may have a higher risk of:

  • skin cancer
  • eye problems, in the case of albinism
  • low self-esteem, in some cases

Tips that can benefit people with hypopigmentation include:

  • using sunscreen and wearing clothes that cover the skin to protect the lighter skin areas from UV rays
  • applying a moisturizer to prevent dryness and itchiness
  • if changes in skin color affect a person’s self-esteem and overall quality of life, counseling can be helpful

Here are some questions people often ask about hypopigmentation.

What causes hypopigmentation?

Skin loses its color when the body cannot produce enough melanin. Causes include genetic factors, trauma, and inflammation. Blisters, burns, dermatitis, and fungal infections are all possible factors.

Does hypopigmentation go away?

It will depend on the cause. Albinism results from genetic factors and will not change over a person’s lifetime. Vitiligo tends to become more widespread over time. Pityriasis alba usually resolves within a year, while pityriasis versicolor often disappears with antifungal treatment.

How does one treat hypopigmentation at home?

It is not always possible to treat hypopigmentation, but some causes will need medical treatment. Avoiding sun exposure can help protect the skin, and moisturizers can help prevent dryness.

Various conditions can involve a loss of skin color, known as hypopigmentation. Pale patches of skin can occur if a person has certain genetic features, if they experience some types of inflammation, if trauma occurs, such as a burn, and for other reasons.

Some of these, such as albinism, are lifelong conditions. Others, such as vitiligo, appear later in life. Some occur with a short-term disease and resolve over time.

Anyone who has concerns about changes in their skin color should consult a doctor, who will advise on the most suitable approach.